Cliefden Caves in Danger

IAN CURTIS Orange Speleological Society (OSS) | Cliefden NSW, with its caves, world-renowned Fossil Hill, tufa dams, hot spring and cultural sites is in danger of being flooded.

The NSW government is proposing to build another dam on the Belubula River and money has been set aside for a feasibility study and construction.

How can the Federal government, on one hand, be trying to return water to the Murray-Darling and the State government, on the other, be considering extracting it?

The idea was publicly raised by the Federal National Party Member for Calare, John Cobb.

Several major industries in the Central West are contracting or closing down — Electrolux at Orange; Simplot and Downer EDI at Bathurst; and the Wallerawang Power Station at Lithgow.

Mr Cobb has been under political pressure to come up with some employment strategies. His solution was to propose building a dam: it would, he argued, assist with job creation, encourage existing industry expansion and attract new industry.

No money was forthcoming in the May Federal budget but the NSW Coalition put the idea firmly on the table in their June budget, and $1 million was allocated for a feasibility study and $150 million earmarked for the construction.

Response was swift and expected.

Jeremy Buckingham (Greens, NSW Legislative Council) called it the ‘stupidest idea in the state’s history’ and ‘policy jotted down on the back of a beer coaster’.

Inland Rivers President Bev Smiles was more measured in her response, arguing that ‘water efficiency, demand management and recycling are cheaper options and less damaging than building new dams’. ‘The policy’, she agreed with Jeremy Buckingham, showed ‘a lamentable lack of imagination’.

Isn’t the Belubula dammed enough?

The Belubula rises between Bathurst and Orange and travels 165 km before it enters the Lachlan near Goolagong.

The Lachlan eventually feeds into the Murray-Darling.

Canowindra (population 1500), famous for its Age of Fishes Museum, is the major town on the river.

The Belubula is already a well-dammed river: Carcoar Dam, built in 1970 and holding 38,000 Ml, is in its headwaters.

The proposed Needles Dam is a few km further down the river and a storage capacity figure of 90,000 Ml is tossed about (depending on dam wall height).

On a tributary, Coombing Creek, is Lake Rowlands [dam], (built 1949-1954) and holding 4,500 Ml. Lake Rowlands supplies water for nearby Blayney. Enlargement of this dam has been a preferred storage option for several years.

A few kilometres downstream Cadia Valley Operations (CVO), (the largest gold mine in NSW which uses 1.5% of the NSW electricity grid) has two dams on lower tributaries as well as an overflow dam on Flyers Creek.

That makes five dams on one short river, not counting the 19th Century dam built to supply water to gold mines at Junction Reefs.

Make that six dams.

History of dams on the Belubula

The Needles, on the Belubula, has long been viewed as a potential dam site. A quick net search brings up several early plans for a dam.

Initially, the idea was to generate electricity. In 1903 a ‘water conservation weir’ was mooted to give ‘ample power for electric lighting’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 10th August 1903).

Then it was to be for irrigation. In 1910 the Canowindra Progress Association proposed approaching the Minister for Works with a view to damming the gorge: ‘… millions of gallons could be stored up at a not very heavy expenditure and some miles of country could be irrigated. (Sydney Morning Herald, 15th December 1909)

In 1913 a Mr W T Harris saw a dam as advantageous to mining. He was mining barytes in the area and was trucking away the ‘raw component’. He wished to crush on site. His weir proposal would ‘back up the water for miles and give power for crushing the barytes and supply electric light for the mine.’

Local papers waxed lyrical about the site: ‘walls of rock 500 feet high … dam the river back for at least 9 miles’.

Enough pressure was exerted on the NSW government for it to undertake several studies. In 1931 Mr L F Harper examined the Needles site. In 1941 the Government Geologist, E J Kenny, too, wrote his report on dam sites on the Belubula.

‘Liable to induce slippage’

Both reports rejected the currently proposed Needles site. ‘I am of the opinion,’ summed up Mr Kenny, ‘that this site is not suitable for the construction of a major masonry dam for the principal reason that to attain a reasonable wall height and make use of the sandstone for abutments it would be necessary to found the structure upon a mass of shales, which, although essentially sandy, embrace clayey layers liable to induce slippage when lubricated by percolating waters.

‘Moreover, the thickness of shales beneath the cliffs does not impress from the viewpoint of strength to resist abnormal pressures.’

That really should have been the end of it, but in 1946 Cranky Rock sites (further down the river than The Needles) were re-examined. In 1952, a year of floods and flood mitigation, there was again a call for new dams.

Earlier proposals for a dam had been frustrated by unsatisfactory geological findings and in 1962 the NSW Department of Mines undertook a further study of the geology of the area: Geology of the Cranky Rock and the Needles Proposed Dam Storage Areas, Canowindra.

During the 1970s a dam at The Needles was again proposed. This was to be an as yet unfounded city’s water supply. The Whitlam government envisioned a Bathurst-Orange growth centre.

Vocal opposition

The idea was to decentralise and bring a new city into being in the Central West. Land was compulsorily acquired, water sources examined, and again the plan was to dam the Belubula — at The Needles — to provide water.

This time there was vocal opposition. Caving clubs had formed since the early 1940s and environmental groups were organising.

The local caving club, Orange Speleological Society (OSS), formed in 1955, working with the ASF, planned strategies and worked to fight the proposals.

Experience gained at Texas, Colong and Mount Etna was put to good use. Growth centre officials were taken through Main Cave (‘impressed’).

Local landowners, the Blayney Apex Club and National Trust representatives were taken through Main too, ‘after which they firmly indicated their support for the preservation of the caves’ (OSS Meeting Minutes).

The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) was informed. The CSIRO, with whom the club had worked for many years with their bat programs, was contacted; the importance of Fossil Hill was widely publicised.
OSS garnered support from local bodies. A public meeting was called at which various experts spoke.

At this meeting a motion was carried: ‘… that this public meeting request the Minister for Planning and the Environment to give a public assurance that any future water storage scheme proposed for the Belubula River be designed to provide for the preservation in perpetuity of the Cliefden Caves System.’

Momentum was building to save the caves when the growth centre was suddenly shelved. New governments had new priorities. And now, a new proposal.

What will be lost if the proposed dam is built?


The current proposed dam wall height is 49 m and full storage level would see water rise to the 421 m contour line. The projected contour flooding in the 1970s was 450 m. At 421 m many of the major cave entrances would be flooded.

It might well take many years for the dam to fill but one flood event would silt the caves as many of them drop to river level. OSS is currently determining the depths of all caves. Extracts from a 1995 survey of cave entrances will give the reader some idea. Measurements are ASL.

  • CL 1 Main Cave (Upper entrance) 445 m; (Lower entrance) 415 m
  • CL 2 Murder 424 m
  • CL 3 Boonderoo 427 m
  • CL 4 Trapdoor 428 m
  • CL 5 Taplow Maze 410 m
  • CL 6 Island 412 m
  • CL 7 Gable 416 m
  • CL 8 Transmission 404 m

There are currently 118 tagged caves and features. A glance through the Australian Karst Index will give readers an idea of the treasures within the caves.

‘The Helictites in the Jewel Chamber could be the best in the Southern hemisphere.’ (Speleo Handbook 1968) A look at the gallery on the Save Cliefden Caves website will be instructive.


‘The Fossil Hill site is one of the best exposed sequences of Ordovician fossiliferous limestone in Eastern Australia … Fossil Hill is truly a site of geoheritage significance.’ (Margaret Brocx, TAG Newsletter 168, 2013).

Thirty-two species of fossil corals, stromatoporoids, trilobites, brachiopods, bryozoa, echinoderms and graptolites are found there. (Australian Heritage Database)


  • The Hot Spring (Thermal springs are found in NSW only at Cliefden, Wee Jasper and Yarrangobilly)
  • The Tufa dams
  • Endangered bat habitat and nursery
  • Scientific research site
  • The Blue Stals
  • Cultural sites (indigenous and early settler)
  • The possibility of, in future, linking Wellington Caves, The Age of Fishes Museum and Fossil Hill as a tourist destination.

Agricultural land

All potentially flooded land is on private property of high agricultural value.

What is being done about this threat?

First, Save Cliefden Caves website was put up by Bruce Welch (SUSS) the day the NSW budget was announced.

This website is clear and informative. Bruce has managed to locate many documents long out of print and with the help of Harry Burkitt, produced clear maps which have been of great assistance to the caving community.

Bruce, along with Armstrong Osborne, has fielded Sydney media requests. To quickly get up to date on all things speleological, go to the website.

In Orange, the local caving club has fielded media and local requests for information. Denis Marsh has been the public face at the OSS end, though all club members have been engaged.

A meeting of all cavers was called in Sydney on July 6th to discuss this issue. Twenty-seven cavers attended from all over NSW. Clubs represented were: OSS, SUSS, BMSC, HCG, HSS, CWCG, SSS, RSS, CSS, MSS, NHVSS, Jenolan Caves Historical and Preservation Society and CEGSA (ASF President, Stan Flavel).

A Save Cliefden Caves committee was formed and members have been in regular contact with the ASF and NSWSC.

The SCC committee

  • Overall Co-Ordinator
    Denis Marsh (OSS)
  • Coordinator of Submissions
    Denis Marsh
  • Website
    Bruce Welch (SUSS/OSS)
  • Media
    Bruce Welch (city); Denis Marsh (local)
  • Social Media
    Harry Burkitt (NHVSS/OSS)
  • Funding
    KCF, ASF
  • Liaison with Stakeholders
    Denis Marsh
  • Hydrology
    Denis Marsh to stand in until an expert is found.
  • Cave Mapping
    Bruce Howlett (OSS); Phil Maynard (SUSS)
  • Area Mapping
    Harry Burkitt
  • Research and Coordination of Scientific Information
    Armstrong Osborne
  • Email Database
    Tim Gartrell (OSS)
  • Secretary
    Ian Curtis (OSS)

The action timeline to date

3rd October 2012 Infrastructure NSW review of the state’s 20 year infrastructure strategy: idea of a dam at the Needles Gap (‘New Carcoar’ dam) initiated. • Early 2013 NSW State Water canvasses support for Needles dam from Central Tablelands Water (CTW). • 13th December 2013 CTW commissions brief conceptual report/scoping study for Needles dam, subsequently provided to John Cobb, Federal Member for Calare. • 14th January 2014 Cobb meets CTW and NSW State Water, states intention of lobbying Federal government for $3 million for feasibility study. • 21st January 2014 Cobb holds a press conference at The Needles flanked by local mayors and CTW. • 24th February 2014 Cobb addresses Parliament supporting the proposal and seeking $3 million for a feasibility study. Unsuccessful. • 13th June 2014 Announcement at National Party Conference that a dam will be funded ($150 million). CW Environment Council has media release critical of proposal. Supported by Nature Conservation Council and Inland Rivers Network. • 14th June 2014 Articles in The Australian and local regional newspapers. • 16th June 2014 OSS media release to all local and Sydney media. • 17th June 2014 Announcement in NSW budget that $1 million is being allocated for a feasibility and scoping study and $150 million set aside in Reserve Funding. • Save Cliefden Caves website set up in Sydney by Bruce Welch. • 19th June 2014 Armstrong Osborne on ABC radio. • 20th June 2014 Media interviews begin on TV, radio and in newspapers — Prime 7 at Cliefden; 2BS at Bathurst; CWD Orange; phone interview with Sydney Morning Herald (Welch, Osborne, Marsh). • Jeremy Buckingham (Greens) speaks on the issue in the Legislative Council. • 23rd June 2014 Wikipedia site set up by Bruce Welch. • 3rd July 2014 Facebook page set up by Harrison Burkitt. • 6th July 2014 Inaugural Save Cliefden Caves meeting at Bankstown. Defence Committee formed. • 12th July 2014 State government allocates another $3.5 million to scoping study. • 14th July 2014 Prime 7 News interview, Orange. • Media release by Bruce Welch. • 20th July 2014 Skype meeting of SCC Executive. • 10th August 2014 Second Skype meeting.


This is a struggle we must win. Cliefden is too important to be lost. Go to the website and study the documents.

There are suggestions there for getting involved in what may be a long campaign.